Voice of All the Suffering; Anna Akhmatova, Her Searing Life and Words

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

Voice of All the Suffering; Anna Akhmatova, Her Searing Life and Words


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Near the end of "Anna of all the Russias," a mesmerizing biography of the legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Elaine Feinstein relates the following:

"[Bella] Akhmadulina told me a wonderful story about a personal encounter. Akhmadulina had offered to drive Akhmatova to a wedding party in her car, which unfortunately was not very reliable. It broke down in the middle of Moscow. Akhmdulina did everything she could to bring the engine to life, using cranking-handle and finding people to help her by investigating under the bonnet. Nothing succeeded. When she was at her wits' end, a friend drove up and at once offered the two women a lift to wherever they wanted to go. Akhmatova, however, refused the offer grandly saying: "I never make the same mistake twice."

Although this anecdote says a great deal about Akhmatova's capacity for aloofness and resolve, it also suggests why this biography of the iconic poet is particularly successful. While faithfully rendering the sequence of the tumultuous events between Akhmatova's birth in 1889 to her death in 1966, throughout the biography Ms. Feinstein keeps the narrative moving by balancing the worst of these events with Akhmatova's transcendent poems.

As a result, from depictions of the days of tsarist splendor and recklessness, through the gathering storm of civil war and revolution, on to Stalinist terror and the aftermath, Akhmatova's life is rendered whole and richly so because of the biographer's knack for putting Akhmatova's powerful words in context.

The book opens deceptively cheerfully: "In 1913 St. Petersburg was an imperial capital, with a black and yellow flag flying over the Winter Palace, private carriages pulled by thoroughbred horses with footmen in uniform who rode on the running-boards. There were trams and trolleys and occasional motor cars. Enticing shop windows on the Nevsky Prospekt had oysters from Paris, lobsters from Ostend and 'fruticakes, smelling salts, Pears soap, playing cards, picture puzzles, striped blazers . . . and football jerseys in the colours o Oxford and Cambridge.'"

Ms. Feinstein writes, "No visitor would have recognised that 'the moon was growing cold over the silver age.' During that period the young Akhmatova, who was born into a family of no particular distinction, was beginning to forge a life of her own - meeting friends at the Stray Dog, the local night spot, and finding her voice in poetry, a voice that - even before it needed to be - was blunt and bleak.

We are all boozers here, and

sleep around.

Together we make up a

desolate crowd.

Even the painted birds and

flowers on the walls

Seem to be longing for

the clouds.

The "elegantly slender" and beautiful Akhmatova early on drew other young poets to her side, notably in those days, Osip Mandelstam who would become one of the giants of 20th century Russian poetry. Ms. Feinstein is adept as showing how well Akhhmatova set about forging her career as a poet of consequence and creating a certain personal mystique. Men and women lusted after her, but in 1910 she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a man about whom she wrote a poem that "seems to go to the heart of their swift estrangement":

He loved three things in

this world

White peacocks, evensong

And faded maps of America. …

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